SAVANNAH - Firefighters scrambled Friday to contain three major wildfires in southeast Georgia, where the blazes had burned more than 53 square miles total as strong winds spread the flames into woods as dry as tinder.
Emergency officials said three homes had burned in Long County, where fire had consumed 7,190 acres, but reported little other structure damage. A second wildfire burning in nearby Bacon County surged to 20,000 acres and spilled into neighboring Ware County. Meanwhile, a swampy peat fire that had shrunk to a smoldering pit in December flared back up and spread over 7,000 acres in Clinch County.
The Georgia Forestry Commission has predicted Georgia could see its most active wildfire season in nearly a decade. Drought conditions and winds blowing 20 mph or more have made for an extremely combustible climate from coastal Savannah to the Florida state line 100 miles south.
"It's unusually dry and with the winds you just can't stop it," said Sheriff Cecil Nobles in Long County, where authorities were forced to evacuate 100 homes, a prison and a nursing home overnight Thursday after a controlled burn quickly spread out of control after winds blew it into nearby trees.
The blaze in Long County, 50 miles southwest of Savannah, jumped a major highway and a set of railroad tracks before 270 firefighters began bringing it under control as winds died down Friday. Darrell Balance, the county's emergency management director, said Friday the fire was half contained and firefighters were busy plowing containment lines around the rest.
Evacuees were allowed to return home Friday, Balance said, and only two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
"We're not calling it contained yet, but we're optimistic," said Balance, who said the blaze had been tough to fight the night before because it was spreading through treetops without touching ground. "I think we've got it to where the fire's on the ground and we can fight it now."
Despite their size - between 11 and 31 square miles each - the three major fires were burning in rural counties with large wooded areas that are only sparsely populated.
Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said firefighters Friday were trying to take advantage of more favorable weather, with lower temperatures and slightly higher humidity.
"The winds are down considerably from yesterday, which is giving us a big advantage," Burnett said. "But we're still not out of the woods yet."
Stronger gusts were expected over the weekend, threatening to fan the flames even more. A chance of thunderstorms in southern Georgia from Saturday into next week could bring soaking rains, but there's also a risk of lightning sparking more fires.
Fire conditions prompted the Forestry Commission to order a halt statewide to permitted burning of trash and debris Friday. Burnett said it would last at least until Monday.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had authorized funding to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting the fires. State forestry officials have predicted a busy 2011 wildfire season could lead to a $1 million budget shortfall.
The dry weather has sparked an unusually busy start to Georgia's wildfire season, with about 2,000 total fires since February. Burnett said firefighters have battled 70 fires statewide since Thursday. Most were small, though one in coastal Camden County scorched 2,100 acres, primarily in marshy areas.
Authorities said the Bacon County fire, while the largest, was also the most isolated from people's homes. The cause was unknown Friday.
The blaze in Clinch County just north of the Florida line had come within a mile of rural Homerville, where the air was thick with smoke and flakes of ash fell like snow. Kenton McLaine, chairman of the Clinch County Commission, said one man's cabinet shop had burned down but no homes had been lost.
He predicted the greatest losses would be suffered by the owners of large acres of timberland harvested for wood and paper products.
"It's going to be a big monetary loss to several big landowners," McLaine said. "It's so sparsely settled out in the neck of the woods where it's burning, I don't think there's a lot of danger to people's homes."